The Storyline of The Oh Hellos (Part 2/2)

With the release of Notos in 2017, The Oh Hellos set out to create a four-part series inspired by the Anemoi, the Greek gods of the four winds. Each album is named after one of the gods, and is inspired by their personalities and legends. The theme tying the four albums together is the question of “Where did my ideas come from?” These albums find The Oh Hellos examining the messy intersection of their faith and culture, the way white nationalism has bled into American Christianity, and the process of growth and sanctification. They draw heavily from the prophets of the Old Testament, echoing these prophet’s uncompromising calls for justice and repentance.The symbol of a wheel also unites the four albums. The band connects the ideas of changing winds and seasons as they ponder what it takes to break free of sinful cycles, both personally and corporately.

Notos and Eurus: Recognizing Patterns & The Beginning of Wisdom

Notos (2017) begins with “On the Mountain Tall,” which draws from the encounter the prophet Elijah has with God in 1 King 19:11-13. The song makes a comparison between all of the fearsome signs Elijah saw– the windstorm, earthquake, and fire– and the way religion is used to spark “a holy war” and sow deceit, discord, and hate. But like how God was not in those fearsome acts, but speaks to Elijah in a small voice, so does God here to the narrator: “Whisper to me words in a voice so small/Like the one that to Elijah called/Quiet as a candle and bright as the morning sun.” The chorus has the narrator reflecting on the momentous task God has called them to: “I know you want me to be afraid/I know you want me to love you.” Here we see the beginning of a motif of the album and the whole series: God as someone to be feared. He is gentle and gracious with his people (as emphasized in the two previous albums). But he does require something of us, and his justice and righteous anger should be feared by sinners. Notos sees God as a fearsome presence and the narrator struggles with anxiety towards him.  

Next is “Torches,” which goes straight into detailing this “holy war.” “Torches” evokes the imagery of a mob, and, specifically, of the tiki torches used by white nationalists in the 2017 Charlottesville protests to detail how divisive the world, and especially the Church, has become, singing “Ignorance will make brothers of us all” and how our sin and our fear of others means that “Over and over, again/We keep that old wheel turning.” The wheel here represents patterns we can’t break out of and intergenerational sins we can’t escape.

Constellations has the narrator reflect on how he has tried to interpret his experiences, but his lack of perspective has caused him to misinterpret them to be hateful towards others. He has relied so heavily on his preconceived notions that he is resistant to change, yet “Like constellations imploding in the night/Everything is turning, everything is turning/And the shapes that you drew may change beneath a different light/And everything you thought you knew will fall apart, but you’ll be alright.”

Notos” uses the imagery of a hurricane to convey the turning of ideas, power, politics, and emotions. Change is coming, and it’s scary for those who were content, but there is also the potential for a cleansing power to occur, like God restarting the Earth after the flood. If the Church has made a mess of things, God will baptize us again, and that’s something to celebrate, not fear. The album ends with “New River,” which finishes this thought, singing: Well, it’ll rain for forty days and nights, and nothing you do can slow the rising tides/But the river takes her shape from every tempest she abides/And like her, you’ll be made new again.”

Eurus (2018) begins with “O Sleeper.” The last album ended with a flood bringing about cleansing change, and this album continues this idea of God changing us and the world in sometimes scary, unpredictable ways so as to overturn our sins to restore things as they should be. The song ends with: “By God, I’ll bloody up my hands/With everything I am/To cut away the mountains I’ve made/And fill the dales below.” This is a recommitment to the work of change, of becoming vulnerable and allowing God to chip away at them until real righteousness can flow out of us and restore us to our true nature. This is a glimpse of glorification, of humans in their perfected state and Earth itself made into the New Heavens and the New Earth. “Grow” points back to Notos’s “New River” and tells of how we must sit back and allow change to happen to us: “Get your feathers ruffled/You got a lot to learn, if you’d just settle down/And let the river run its course.” 

Passerine” ends the album by bringing to the forefront what has been lurking in the background of the past two albums: critiques of the modern American church. “Passerine” muses on how the narrator’s fellow Christians have become like the dominant culture. They are compared to “centurions,” who are building the fires for “that Greco-Roman dream” (= American Dream). The narrator laments that while she thought she was following Christ, she realizes that by following these legalistic and hypocritical Christians, she “can’t shake this feeling that I was only/Pushing the spear into your side again.” The song ratchets up to a loud, anthemic chorus with the whole band sing-screaming: “When he comes a-knocking at my door/What am I to do, what am I to do, oh lord?/When the cold wind rolls in from the north/What am I to do, what am I to do, oh lord?” The sound is of overwhelming fear. Like the scariness of the flood/baptism change at the end of Notos, Eurus also ends with spiritual anxiety, a fear of God and what he’s going to do with us and our sin. It is the sound of a guilty conscience hearing the judge’s footsteps round the corner. The mention of the “cold wind” ushers in Boreas.

Boreas and Zephyrus: Humbled through Suffering into True Maturity

Boreas (2020), despite being winter-themed and about sadness and suffering, is full of tenderness, both musically and lyrically, providing relief to the fear shown in Eurus. It is scary to know that we are going to be disciplined and changed, but oh! God is good to us. The album opens with “Cold,” which introduces the winter imagery. “Cold” ends with a summary of the previous albums; the narrator says that she has relied on wealth for her security: “You paved your Hades/With precious stone/Made an hеirloom to patricians and the rich alone.” The narrator decides she’s not going to do this anymore, she’s ready to do the work of letting God change her: “Well, I’m not quite ready/To turn to bone/To petrify the shred of life/I’m holding onto.” 

Rose” is all about the Church, laying out The Oh Hellos’s loving rebuke of the modern American (white, Evangelical) church. Lines like “Your dowry, it ain’t fooling/The pyrite is showing through/It won’t buy you that empty tomb” show how the Bride of Christ has contented herself with fool’s gold rather than Christ, and how she has been promiscuous to another, a “leviathan groom” (call back to Dear Wormwood’s “Where is your Rider”). “Rose” ends on a melancholy note, saying that there is pain on our way– both the persecution Jesus promised all believers will endure, but also discipline for sin– “So lay compress to the aching/Of your body made for breaking/We’ve got a lot of breaking left to do.”

In “Boreas,” the narrator asks that the pain she is undergoing make her a better person: “Maybe then my brеath could embody/A wildfire starting/I’d sweep up the forеst floor/And my body breathe life into the corners/Be a darker soil… In the end all I hope for/Is to be a bit of warmth for you/When there’s not a lot of warmth left/To go around.” Glowing” ends the album on another bittersweet note. It acknowledges the difficulty of these winter seasons of life. But “Glowing” also promises that “It would feel like rebirth/Out of some kind of dying/To see yourself so glowing.”

Zephyrus (2020) finds the narrator in a much more secure position, now more humbled and gracious, self-aware and rooted in God’s love and goodness. The narrator has undergone the winter season and endured trials and pain, and God has used that time to turn her into someone more beautiful, giving, and free. The opening number, “Rio Grande,” tells us that the narrator has rededicated him/herself to the act from “Oh Sleeper.” In “Oh Sleeper,” the narrator sings: “I’ll bloody up my hands/With everything I am/To cut away the mountains I’ve made/And fill the dales below.” In “Rio Grande,” they sing: “Oh, maybe I’m naive for thinking/That a mountain so stubborn can move/But if I’m a mountain moving/I think maybe you can be, too.” Now the narrator is thinking of other people as well and is extending love to them.

In “Theseus,” a river goes from representing scary, abrupt change, into representing peace (which is stable but not static): “Oh, that peace like a river/Always going, but never getting.” This brings back the theme from “Grow” of change being the best place for people to be in, because that’s when we grow. They sing of this healing: “It’s gonna hurt like hell to become well/But if we set the bone straight/It’ll mend/It’ll fix/And we’ll be well.”

Zephyrus” continues the thoughts of “Boreas.” In “Boreas,” the narrator asks that she become kindling that will bring warmth to others. In “Zephyrus,” she speaks in garden-based metaphors of caretaking and love for others: “I wanna help mother up an orchard/From a seed/Up through sapling” and “Break the bonds/I’ve been holding onto/Let ‘em soften me…Till every part that I am made of/Waters deep/To the roots/Of something greener.” Soap” continues this thought, with the narrator now speaking to another character, telling them that “I think that you’re worth keeping around/I think that you’re worth holding onto…It’s gonna hurt like hell/But we’re going to be well/I’ll give you my best shot.” Personal growth is painful, but it softens you into someone that can better relate to and serve others. 

Rounds” closes the album and the total series, once again returning to the imagery of cycles and wheels. “Rounds” has the narrator realizing the cycle they have just gone through over the course of the four albums- conviction, repentance, discipline, and growth- will happen over and over and over again, but each time they will get more stable: “Round, around, a round again/Will you start where I end?/Am I still speaking?/Yeah I’m long in the wind/I’ll go on and on and on again/If my chest don’t cave in.” 

In conclusion: The Oh Hellos are good, I highly recommend listening to them! I don’t know where the band will go next. I think they could explore any of these subjects again, or they could go more in-depth into songs about suffering or examinations of the church. They could mine more from the scriptures (a concept album retelling Bible stories in song? Yes please!). Or they could move more towards glorification, imaging heaven and holiness and what we have to look forward to.

Happy Easter. He has risen indeed!

– Madeleine D.

Thank you to Genius.com for lyric annotations 

Sources and further reading: 

https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/01/23/oh-hellos-folk-rock-band-thats-not-afraid-address-politics-or-religion

https://www.npr.org/sections/allsongs/2017/11/15/564156775/song-premiere-the-oh-hellos-torches

The Storyline of The Oh Hellos (Part 1/2)

I’d like to take a small detour from movies to discuss a band whose music has recently captured my imagination: The Oh Hellos, a folk-rock duo from Texas led by siblings Maggie and Tyler Heath and a rotation of bandmates. Maggie and Tyler are Christians, and their faith is tightly wrapped into all of their music. Their music does not sound or read like many mainstream Christian artists, instead, they borrow from mythology and history as well as scripture to tell stories with skillful musicianship. Like an Oh Hellos cinematic universe, there is a continual storyline across the body of their work– two full-length albums and four EPs– which is what I want to explore here. 

This storyline is that of one narrator’s Christian walk, from conversion into spiritual maturity. Or, to use theological terms: Justification– being made right in the eyes of God; Sanctification– the ongoing process of being made more like Christ; and Glorification– the final transformation of believers into eternal beings united with God forever. I’m going to look at how their first two albums tell the story of justification and sanctification on an individual level, and then how their four EP’s tell the story of corporate sanctification with glimpses into glorification. After reading, I hope you will be inspired to listen to this band’s fantastic work, and enjoy the rich (and true!) story they tell.  

Through the Deep Dark Valley: The Prodigal Son & Justification

Through the Deep Dark Valley (2012) retells Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, drawing from it the universal story of how every believer and, in turn, all of humanity, has broken away from God our loving father, and will eventually make their way back into his forgiving arms.

The album opens with “The Valley,” which sets up the premise. The band bellows: “We were born in the valley of the dead and the wicked…We were born in the shadow of the crimes of our fathers/ Blood was our inheritance/No, we did not ask for this/ Will you lead me?…We came down to the water and we begged for forgiveness.” Being born in sin, we needed to be led away from it and saved. But who will save us? What will that journey from sin entail? “Inheritance,” “water,” and “forgiveness” are all recurring symbols.

The main meat of the album is a series of seven songs that directly retell the parable, beginning with the track “Second Child, Restless Child,” which draws up a portrait of the narrator, the younger son who desires to run from his father’s home and pursue freedom: “See, I was born a restless child/And I could hear the world outside calling me.”Wishing Well” tells of the son experiencing the freedom he thought he wanted, yet coming to the end of himself: “Curse my restless wandering feet/Prone to wander endlessly.” These lyrics are a reference to the old hymn “Come Thou Fount,” which has the line prone to wander, Lord I feel it.” References to “Come Thou Fount” litter the album. “Wishing Well” closes with the son realizing all of his adventures have left him feeling empty. The son has nothing left, both physically and spiritually, having squandered his father’s inheritance and love.

In Memoriam” is the climax of the younger son’s story. He returns home and is fully embraced by his father. The song explores the son’s feelings of shame and guilt: “But I’m sure I’ll find you waiting there for me/And by the time I blink, I’ll see your wild arms swinging/Just to meet me in the middle of the road/And you’ll hold me like you’ll never let me go…But you are far too beautiful to love me…Heaven knows I’m prone to leave the only God I should have loved/Yet you’re far too beautiful to leave me.” Note again the use of “prone to leave” as a reference to “Come Thou Fount.” Also note how the use of “beautiful” goes from explaining why God should not love us to explaining his mercy. 

The Lament of Eustace Scrubb is next (and is my favorite The Oh Hellos song). The title comes from the character Eustace Scrubb from the fifth book in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The Oh Hello’s love for C.S. Lewis drives their second album, which Maggie Heath describes as “basically C.S. Lewis fanfiction.” But we’re not there yet! Eustace Scrubb has a radical conversion experience in Dawn Treader, and the parallels between him and the prodigal son (and, by default, all of us) are sung here as the narrator asks forgiveness from his brother and father. This song ends with the lines “When I touch the water/They tell me I could be set free,” evoking baptism. 

I Was Wrong” concludes the younger son/narrator asking for forgiveness. It also ties in the larger story of man’s rejection of God starting in the garden: “And I was torn from the start/I was torn between my God and my Father…/As I took from the tree that was rotting…Now I’ll hide my shame with woven leaves.” “I Have Made Mistakes” comes after forgiveness as an acknowledgment that “I have made mistakes, I continue to make them” and detailing how, even though the narrator knows he will continue to sin and be prone to wandering, he will come back again and again to repentance, and “Nothing is a waste, if you learn from it”.

The Truth is a Cave,” I think, could be read as from the Older Brother’s perspective if the older brother came to repentance himself. This narrator sings of trying so desperately “To be the child that you wanted,” that he wore himself out with staunch obedience and duty, becoming self-righteous and legalistic so that “the truth became a tool, that I held in my hand/And I wielded it but did not understand.” But he comes to realize that instead of God/his father asking him to do everything, God/father has already done it, and simply calls out to the son for a personal relationship. “Valley- Reprise repeats many of the same lyrics as the beginning, but ends with “Still you lead me, never leave me/Never leave me” and then an instrumental cover of “Come Thou Fount.” 

Dear Wormwood: Leaving your abusive master & the beginning of sanctification

Dear Wormwood (2015) is inspired by C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. The Screwtape Letters (1942) is written as a series of letters from experienced demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood (also a demon) on how to better tempt his human project. In the album, each song is written like a letter between two parties. Typically, it is the narrator versus an abusive power. So it’s like the human is speaking back to his demons, his personal Wormword and Screwtape. After all, sin is our abusive master who we were slaves to, and the work of sanctification is the daily work of resisting again and again the sins of our flesh. We are not freed from all of our sins the moment we’re converted. It is an ongoing process; the three steps forward, two steps back of progress. But it’s not just enough to leave behind your sin– you must find something or someone more glorious to replace it with. 

After an instrumental “Prelude the album opens with “Bitter Water,” which has the narrator acknowledging that his/her relationship with the other party is toxic, but still desirable, singing: “I still taste you on my lips/Lovely bitter water/The terrible fire of old regret is honey on my tongue…I know I shouldn’t love you but I do.” Like a bad ex, we have sins we cling to that we know are destroying us, but we can’t imagine living without them.

There Beneath” has the narrator see a king character (Jesus) being presented as an alternative thing to worship and love–a beautiful, more worthy thing. This sets the stage for the narrator to finally end/leave the abusive relationship.” In “Exeunt,” the narrator ends the relationship, singing: “Even when you hunt me with ire, relentless/Batter down my door when you find me defenseless/I will not abide all your raging and reaving/I have set my mind and my will: I am leaving.”

Caesar” goes back to focus on the narrator’s new love and zeal for Jesus, the new and better ruler and object of affection. “Caesar” uses crucifixion imagery to set up the second part of the album, which is retelling how Jesus’s death and resurrection killed Death itself, Death and sin being our ultimate enemy. “Caesar” introduces a three-song storyline dealing with this death to Death, beginning with “This Will End,” which sees the narrator wondering if the afterlife is going to be worth the pain that comes with living. He comes to the conclusion that even though there is “endless battery” between him and sin/evil, there is a “kind of love” that the sin/evil cannot even comprehend, the love of Christ. This directly sets up the two-parter of “Pale White Horse” and “Where is Your Rider.”

Pale White Horse” depicts Death as a horse, with Satan as its rider, drawing upon Revelation 6:8: “Neither plague nor famine tempered my courage/Nor did raids make me cower/But his translucent skin/Made me shiver deep within my bones/It was a pale white horse/With a crooked smile/And I knew it was my time.Where is Your Rider has the narrator gloating that even though Death may kill him, this horse is riderless. Satan has been defeated! Death has no lasting power against Christ. The band gloats: “The shadow of Hades is fading/For He has cast down Leviathan, the tyrant, and the horse and rider/Where is your rider?” It ends with a celebration of Christ, proclaiming “He has hoisted out of the mire every child/So lift your voice with timbrel and lyre/We will abide, we will abide, we will abide.” The lyrics have multiple allusions to Revelation and apocalyptic literature, along with references to 1st Corinthians 15:55-57: “‘O death, where is your victory?/O death, where is your sting?’”

Dear Wormwood” is a return to the original concept of letters, with this titular song tying all of the themes of the album together. The narrator directly confronts his demon and calls out how the demon has worked through the narrator’s life: “You have taught me well to sit and wait/Planning without acting/Steadily becoming what I hate.” But he finally calls out, “I know who you are now,” and “Now I understand you…And I name you my enemy…/I want to be more than this devil inside of me” The album ends with “Thus Always to Tyrants,” which sings that while there will always be evil powers and sin, a victory is coming and it’s worth waiting for. 

These two albums focus on the individual’s faith. In the next four EP’s, The Oh Hellos move into examining collective, corporate faith. Themes of power and abuse come into the forefront as the band reckons with the way the Church has responded to political upheaval and has compromised the Gospel. We’ll explore that in part

-Madeleine D.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the most anticipated movies of 2021, and it doesn’t disappoint. Outstanding performances by Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry To Bother You) ground the story of Bill O’Neal (Stanfield), an informant who infiltrated the Black Panther Party in Chicago and helped the FBI kill chairman Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) in 1969. 

As an alumnus of the Oklahoma educational system, I was never taught about the Black Panthers other than they were on the “wrong side” of the civil rights movement and were diametrically opposed to Martin Luther King Jr’s nonviolent approach. This, of course, not only neuters King, who was quite radical, but also ignores the complexities of the Black Panthers and erases the good they did.  

So I went into Judas and the Black Messiah knowing very little about anything. If you are more familiar and educated on this subject, you may find more things to take issue with, especially when it comes to Fred Hampton’s portrayal. As my first real introduction to the subject, though, I was riveted. The movie balances the politics and violence with tender moments which humanize Hampton to flesh out the story and create a three-dimensional look at this period in Hampton’s life and career. The story honors Hampton, but it does not completely heroize or villanize him and the Panthers. 

However, the film struggles between being a straight biopic of Hampton or an FBI crime movie, and caught in the middle is O’Neal, who as a result, is not fleshed out very well. O’Neal’s motivations as a character feel weak and under-baked, but Lakeith Stanfield mostly overcomes these problems with the script through his sheer charisma and expressiveness. And speaking of Stanfield, the best part of Judas and the Black Messiah are the performances, and all three leads are excellent. Daniel Kaluuya brings a feverish intensity and equal vulnerability to his role, and Jesse Plemons as an FBI agent continues to nail the role of creepy “nice” guy. Kaluuya and Stanfield have both been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, and I think either would be deserving of a win (although it makes more sense for Kaluuya to be in the Best Actor category). 

It’s hard not to speak of the film as being “timely” in light of the reignited national conversation about police brutality over last summer with the killing of George Floyd (and the upcoming trial of officer Derek Chauvin). Yet maybe the most effective part of the film is reminding us these events were not part of the distant past, a history we are repeating. Fred Hampton’s son and Hampton’s fiancée Deborah Johnson appear at the end of the movie. This was 52 years ago. It’s not the past, it’s the present that we continue to wrestle with. 


Judas and the Black Messiah is currently in theaters

-Madeleine D.

Top 10 Movies of 2020

Three months into 2021, and despite some good news (Covid vaccines!), there has already been plenty of evidence that 2021 will continue to be just as strange as 2020. However, while we hope 2021 will be different when it comes to movies and theaters, let us also look back and celebrate the movies that helped 2020 suck less. As always, my criteria for this top 10 list:

  1. How much I enjoyed the film and how much it stuck with me.
  2. How “good” of a film it is, in terms of craft and use of the medium.
  3. Cultural significance and relevance

I have not yet seen: The Father and Promising Young Woman. And as a note: while the Oscars have widened their eligibility window to includes some films released in 2021, I will be keeping my list to films that were released during the 2020 calendar year in the United States.

Honorable Mentions: The Trial of the Chicago 7, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Sound of Metal, News of the World, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Athlete A, Time, Bad Education, Run, The Old Guard, Nomadland, and One Night in Miami 

10. Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson is Dead is a strange little documentary. The premise is wonderfully morbid: a filmmaker has her aging father stage a bunch of ways he could die as a way for both of them to process the end of his life. Along with being an honest look at dementia and a celebration of a man’s life, Dick Johnson is Dead looks death straight in the face in a way that we so rarely do in American culture. Memento mori. 

9. Minari

While I have never been apart of a Korean family in the 1980s that moved to Arkansas to start a farm, Minari feels both so intimate and universal that I feel like I have. While the film fails to have a satisfying ending, the superb ensemble cast and excellent directing makes Minari a highlight of the year.

8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t do much to transform August Wilson’s play into a film, but despite the lacking direction, the performances (including Chadwick Boseman’s last) and the writing are just too good to overlook. It has several things in common with Regina King’s directorial debut One Night in Miami, which I also debated putting here. One Night transforms its theater/play roots into something more cinematic, but it too has its historical characters embodying warring ideologies about Black uplift, performance, artistry, and autonomy. Both are excellent, but in the end, I simply enjoyed Ma Rainey and its stylishness a bit more.

7. Herself

Like Driveways (which is further down on my list) Herself is about neighborliness and community. It follows Sandra (Clare Dunne), a woman who escapes her abusive husband with her two daughters to start a new life. Sandra decides to build her own house, and must rely on the help of strangers and estranged friends to get the job done. Commentary on well-meaning but often restricting social services simmer under the more-important emotional story of a woman rebuilding her life with the support of others.

6. The Invisible Man

I debated between putting The Invisible Man or Run here, as I loved both of these female-led thrillers. In the end, I chose The Invisible Man because I was just so impressed with the creativity of this retelling of the H.G Wells story and how it becomes an examination of domestic abuse, gaslighting, and the psychology of victimhood. Elizabeth Moss and her agony carry the whole film.

5. Ordinary Love

Ordinary Love is a masterclass in acting by Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville. Neeson and Manville play an older married couple who get a breast cancer diagnosis. The film follows treatment and the stresses it puts on their relationship. Ordinary Love is an intimate look at a relationship between two characters you desperately want to protect, which makes every little blow devastating. It made me feel multitudes. 

4. The Personal History of David Copperfield

This was easily the best movie-going experience I’ve had this year (in part because I actually got to see this in theaters, just a few weeks before my town’s Regal Theater closed indefinitely). A quirky and whimsical adaptation that does right by the source material, The Personal History of David Copperfield was an unexpected delight.

3. The Assistant

The Assistant follows a young assistant (Julia Gardner) to a film producer as she struggles with what to do when she realizes her boss is sexually assaulting other women. We see our protagonist in an ethical dilemma where there is no way to do the right thing without being punished. It and Athlete A are the best films, I think, to have come out of the #MeToo movement, with The Assistant giving a clear-eyed view of the complex power dynamics within the film industry in a subtle, unflinching way.

2. Sorry We Missed You

Sorry We Missed You reminds me of 2019’s Uncut Gems, in that both are equally stressful films to watch. However, while Uncut Gems is about a man ruining his own life through terrible decisions, Sorry We Missed You sees an English family make every right decision they can, yet continually be pummeled by circumstance and external forces, never able to get ahead no matter how hard they try. The film is not explicitly political, but I still think it is the most political film of the year by showing the plight of the working class and the traps of the gig economy. It probably won’t get the same awards attention as Parasite, last year’s Oscar-winning class-conscious film, but it certainly deserves your attention. 

1. Driveways

Like Ordinary Love and Herself, Driveways is a drama with a small cast of characters, and here, the stakes are even smaller. Following a single mother and her son as they try to clean out her dead sister’s house to sell, Driveways is a meditation on neighborliness, loneliness, and intergenerational connection. It’s a gentle, sweet parable that encourages us to set aside our fear of strangers and pursue relationships with them. In a year where we were divided not only ideologically, but physically, Driveways felt exceptionally poignant. 

-Madeleine D.

January and February Netflix Movies: The White Tiger, Malcolm & Marie, To All the Boys 3, and I Care a Lot

The White Tiger

The White Tiger, based on the 2008 book by Aravind Adiga, tells the story of Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a driver for a wealthy family in India who plots to escape his poverty and low-caste status. The White Tiger has been compared to Slumdog Millionaire, and it even references Slumdog Millionaire in the movie. The White Tiger poses itself as a corrective, a real look at India and the lower class, from a distinctly Indian gaze, not sanded down or whitewashed for Western audiences. Like 2019’s Best Picture winner Parasite, The White Tiger brings class politics and a story of poverty into sharp focus with a satirical bite. Balram wins our sympathy as we witness his abuse, yet his methods to free himself are deeply disturbing, but there are seemingly no other options for him. As he fashions himself into the kind of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” entrepreneur that we all but worship in America, the movie becomes deeply unsettling. While the film doesn’t always perfectly balance the tone, the politics, and the commentary, it mostly succeeds, especially with Gourav’s performance. It’s worth the watch, even when it’s hard to swallow.

Malcolm & Marie

In Malcolm & Marie, starring John David Washington and Zendaya as the titular couple, Malcolm, a film director, has two lengthy monologues about critics- pointedly, at liberal white critics who try to impose a racial reading onto all films created by Black filmmakers. Malcolm reads one of these reviews of his film and eviscerates it. This puts me, as a critic, in an awkward position. The review Malcolm reads is a lot like the stuff I have written on this very blog. Or, at least, what I’ve wanted to write here, in an effort to imitate other reviewers I find to be thoughtful and insightful. 

As an aspiring critic, I found it fascinating and humbling to watch Malcolm & Marie. As a viewer, though, I’m not quite as sure of its appeal. It’s two hours of straight arguing, where Malcolm and Marie don’t so much embody people as they do warring ideological stances. At one point Marie calls Malcolm an “emotional terrorist,” and honestly, I feel a little terrorized watching these two people try to destroy each other in hateful words. It’s incredibly sad, and I can’t say if there is anything really redemptive about watching these arguments. But that’s my perspective as a single person; it may play differently to people in relationships. 

Malcolm & Marie has similarities to Locked Down. Both were made in quarantine, are about a troubled couple, and are very theatrical through their use of monologues and limited staging. Malcolm & Marie is better made and acted, but both are wearying to watch. 

To All The Boys: Always and Forever

Netflix’s juggernaut young adult romance series To All the Boys I Loved Before comes to a close with the third installment, Always and Forever. In it, our high school sweethearts Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) are seniors looking towards college and the future, and whether the other has any place in it. 

After three installments, the conflicts between Lara Jean and Peter can feel contrived. Even in its most hokey moments, though, Condor and Centineo’s chemistry elevates the material. But it’s all of the story elements outside of the romance in Always and Forever that make the film interesting and real. One of the subplots has Lara Jean’s father getting remarried, and Lara Jean struggles to be happy for him while also sad at the disappearing traces of her mom. The struggle to choose a college is all very real for high school seniors, as is the struggle to determine what is worth holding onto and what you have to let go of. Peter feels like going to college means abandoning his family, and when his absent father wants back into his life, Peter must wrestle with his anger towards him. There are pieces of nuance here that cut through an otherwise slightly-overcooked melodrama of a relationship that feels one miscommunication away from ending. However, I think fans of the series, or people who love rom-coms, will enjoy To All the Boys. But no matter how hard it tries, it can’t beat the classic movie it’s obviously based on: High School Musical 3

I Care a Lot

Like White Tiger, I Care a Lot desires to deliver a scathing commentary on capitalism through its ruthless antihero. Here Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson, a legal guardian for senior citizens. Marla is running a powerful scheme: she bribes medical professionals to identify rich elderly clients, then falsely report that the client is sick or otherwise unable to take care of themselves. Marla then swoops in and takes legal custody of them by sending the victim to a care facility and seizing hold of all of their assets and making bank. 

Inspired by real-life cases of elder abuse, this compelling premise makes for an excellent first act, which shows Marla enact her plot on the seemingly meek Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Weist). I was physically sickened watching Marla’s crimes. This first act offers observations into how Marla is able to get away with her scheme by using her privileges as a white woman, with her self-styled “girlboss” business-savvy, and how she is able to exploit bureaucracy and the indifference of the legal system. 

All of this promise, packaged into a fast-paced, stylish film, is lost in the second and third acts, which devolve into a mob-movie that tries to paint Marla as sympathetic and is simply not as unique as the film’s initial premise. I Care a Lot is an entertaining watch, but it doesn’t add up to anything. When it was over, all I felt was numb and disgusted. 

-Madeleine D.

Locked Down

Locked Down is the newest of the slowly emerging Coronavirus pandemic movie genre. This one is about Linda (Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a couple who want to split up but must live together when the pandemic puts London under lockdown order. The movie follows their struggles to live together and their eventual heist to steal a three-million-dollar diamond. 

The “heist” in question is barely a heist, more like two characters calmly executing a low-key plan without any resistance during the last thirty minutes of the film. This leaves the bulk of the movie to be a so-called romantic comedy. Except it’s not funny or romantic. Because Paxton and Linda spend the whole movie disdaining one another, and we never get a sense of their relationship pre-breakup, we have no reason to want these two miserable, unlikeable people to get back together. 

Hathaway and Ejiofor both give manic, oddly absurd performances. Both are talented actors, so it must be due to the script (with its hammy, theatrical monologues), the direction, and their lack of chemistry. The other actors literally phone it in for video-chat cameos that add nothing. 

The screenplay was written over a couple of weeks and filmed over 18 days, and it shows. Every scene is over-written, a first draft that was never edited. I read beforehand that the script was still being written during filming, so Hathaway and Ejiofor had to tape their lines onto each other’s arms as cue cards as they filmed. Knowing this, I was able to spot a few times where it was obvious. Every scene feels like a run-through. 

I admire the desire to create art out of the present, as a way to process, cope, and memorialize, as we have come to say, an unprecedented time. Perhaps Locked Down would have felt novel on April 1st, 2020, but even though we are still in the throes of the pandemic, it already feels dated. This is because Locked Down touches on all of the already-tired touchpoints of the pandemic– toilet paper hoarding, breadmaking, day drinking, angsty walks around the neighborhood, relationships stressed by proximity, and the torture of zoom calls. All of these activities did happen to many people, and that’s why they became jokes and memes. These jokes and memes are based on truth, but have watered down the experiences so much that they don’t feel like authentic expressions anymore. And that’s what Locked Down is: some realities of the spring-2020 experience, distorted by a lack of reflection and time, that in an effort to be timely, offers nothing timeless.

Locked Down is streaming on HBO Max.

– Madeleine D.

A Man and His Silent Little Girl: The Midnight Sky and News of the World

*Spoilers for The Midnight Sky

During every awards cycle, there are what I like to call the “A-list” and the “B-list” of awards movies. The A-list award movies are the movies which are most certainly going to get nominated. This year, some of those films will probably include the likes of Nomadland, Minari, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, and others. Then there is the B-list, which are movies that have all the makings of award films and were clearly made with an eye towards awards, but are not going to get any major recognition. 

I believe The Midnight Sky and News of the World to be B-list award films. Neither has gotten quite the traction or critical reception they need to be top award contenders and while they may get nominated in smaller categories, I don’t see either as having a chance as top contenders. This is not to say they aren’t good, they’re just not quite as good as they think they are.

Along with being both B-list award films, they also have something else in common which I’d like to explore a little deeper. Both films feature older men who are accompanied on a journey by a young girl, who is either completely mute or speaks very little (or speaks a different language). This setup has become a trope, and one I think has fascinating implications. We’ll flesh that out further, but for now, let’s look at each film individually.

The Midnight Sky was released on Netflix in December. It is directed by and stars George Clooney, who plays Augustine, the last man on Earth. Augustine is trying to make contact with a group of astronauts on their way home who have no idea of the catastrophe that has wiped out civilization. Augustine discovers a mute young girl (Caoilinn Springall) to be left on Earth with him, and she joins him on the journey to warn the astronauts.  

The Midnight Sky looks beautiful, and Netflix obviously spared no expense in making it compete with the technical achievements of other recent space films, of which there have been many (Gravity, First Man, The Martian, Interstellar…). The setup of the film is intriguing as well, and there are a couple of exciting setpieces with Clooney and Springall fighting against the arctic wilderness. However, The Midnight Sky promises a meditation on grief and loneliness which never really lands. There are too many characters and none of them get their due, and there is too much vagueness about the catastrophes of Earth to feel real or unnerving. The cinematography is the most beautiful and interesting thing about it. 

Meanwhile, News of the World reunites director Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks after they worked together on Captain Phillips. Here, Hanks plays another captain, Captain Kidd, a man who makes his living going from town to town reading newspapers. When he comes across an orphaned young girl (Helena Zengel), he decides to take her on an arduous journey to get her to her relatives. The use of the immediate post-Civil War setting and its atmosphere of paranoia and distrust, along with the film’s emphasis on stories and the role of journalism (which brings to mind Hank’s role in 2017’s The Post) make News of the World feel timely without being too preachy (save for a few scenes). However, the relationship between Kidd and the kid is clearly the film’s emotional core, and most of that comes from Hanks. The screenplay does very little to establish why Kidd makes the sacrifices he does for the girl. Instead, the film relies on Hank’s casting. Why does Kidd drop everything to go on this journey for the girl’s sake? Because he’s Tom Hanks! Do you think Tom Hanks is going to let anything happen to a child? No! Because he’s Tom Hanks, and Tom Hanks always does the right thing, and that is that. From this foundation, Hanks and Zengel are able to build a more fleshed out, interesting relationship which carries the film. 

Both films are fine, with News of the World edging out as the better one. Yet what I find interesting is how they embody this emerging trope of a gruff older man + near-silent young girl. I first noticed this dynamic in 2017’s Logan, with Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine and Dafne Keen as Laura/X23, but other examples can be seen in War For the Planet of the Apes, Eleven in Stranger Things, Boo from Monsters Inc, along with many other variations. Vulture, upon the release of Logan, published an article about this phenomenon (with a focus on violent little girl characters), which includes the key observation that the girls in these roles “[exist] to be observed as an object of contemplation.” No matter how much agency she has in the story, her presence is something that causes the leading man to reflect upon himself, usually about his failings as a father, or what could have been. This is most explicit in The Midnight Sky, where it is revealed the little girl is not even real, but is George Clooney’s character imagining his daughter, who is actually Felicity Jones’s astronaut character. 

Now I am actually quite fond of this trope, and it’s easy to see its appeal. What is the similarity between the apocalypse of The Midnight Sky and the wild frontier of News of the World, or the world of the X-Men, or a science-fiction dystopia? Parenthood! Men embracing their paternal instinct! Drama is created through differences and contrasts, and since an older man and a young girl are seen as opposites, characters with this dynamic automatically have great cinematic potential.  

Yet, while emotionally this is an engaging trope, it comes at a cost. It is great to see these movies and genres- science fiction, western, superhero, etc.- that have traditionally been unwelcoming to women, now include them and allow young girls to see themselves in the picture through this trope. But the silence of these young girls, and how they rarely have personalities beyond being objects of observation, means they are not really characters. They could be replaced with a dog the male characters loves, and nothing would change. I wonder what it would be like to replace many of these little girls with grown women who come alongside the protagonist and join them as equals (maybe even without an obligatory romance!). Or, at least, if these young girls are allowed to speak, and take action in these stories. 

Consider that there is no equivalent trope for young boy characters. You don’t see many movies where older women are taking young boys under their wing. Firstly, because older women don’t exist in film. Secondly, if a young boy is in a film, they’re usually going on their own adventure. They’re not there as prompts for other characters to discover more about themselves. These boys are active agents of their own adventure. They are being prepped to be the next Tom Hanks or George Clooney, and maybe one day will be old enough to have their own silent surrogate daughter. 

– Madeleine D

Could 2021 Be the Greatest Year in Movie History?

A guest post by Jonathan Dorst

This past December, many of us watched a rare occurrence in the night sky- the ‘great conjunction’ of Jupiter and Saturn that some called the Christmas Star. As I look ahead to this year in movies, coming on the heels of Netflix’s announcement of their planned weekly movie release, I am wondering if there will be a great conjunction of films. With the many films that were held over from their original 2020 release dates combined with the normal slate of 2021 releases, will 2021 become the greatest year in movie history? To answer that question, we first need to ask three other questions.

The obvious first question is, When will people go back to theaters? Many people might not return in mass until the fall, or even into 2022 (and some people, having spent thousands of dollars on home theaters during quarantine, may never return to a traditional theater at all). But, with the news of Warner Brothers pictures now being released on HBO Max the same day as they premiere in theaters, it would seem that the streamers are winning the release war and will pick up the slack of theater revenue. Nevertheless, it’s possible that some of the big releases this year might get pushed back to 2022 by nervous studio executives, like Damien Chazelle’s upcoming Brad Pitt/Margot Robbie-starring film Babylon has already been.

The second question: What is coming up this year, and why should we expect a great year? To start with, let’s talk about the directors who have films slated to come out this year (how spoiled are we?): Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, Steven Soderbergh, Taika Waititi, Paul Schrader, Kenneth Branagh, Peter Jackson, Denis Villeneuve, Ridley Scott, Sam Levinson, Cary Fukunaga, Adam McKay, Jane Campion, Tom McCarthy, Ramin Bahrani, and more. 

You’ve got lots of potential blockbusters: Top Gun: Maverick, Black Widow, No Time to Die (the new Bond film), Dune, Sherlock Holmes 3, The Matrix 4, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, F9, Cruella, Mortal Combat, A Quiet Place II, Godzilla Vs. Kong, Uncharted, Jungle Cruise, The Suicide Squad (not to be confused with 2016’s Suicide Squad), and Death On the Nile

You’ve got auteur-driven films: The Card Counter (Schrader), Last Night in SoHo (Wright), The Northman (Eggars), The White Tiger (Bahrani), No Sudden Moves (Soderbergh), Next Goal Wins (Waititi), Pinocchio (del Toro), and possibly Killers of the Flower Moon (Scorsese). 

You’ve got your musicals and musical biopics: In the Heights, Respect, and The Beatles: Get Back. You’ve got Tom Hanks in Bios and the Untitled Elvis Presley Project. You’ve got Pixar (Luca), Disney (lots of stuff, including many of the aforementioned blockbusters), DC (Morbius), Marvel (Black Widow and a new Spider-Man), and a long-awaited Space Jam sequel. Get your popcorn ready, there’s a lot coming this year.

The third question is, What’s the competition? Which years in movie history are the best up to this point? This, of course, is a matter of great debate, and is probably hopelessly subjective (unless you just go by box office receipts, in which case 2018 would be the champ). But, it seems that there are three years that are regularly considered by critics and film buffs as the greatest year in movie history: 1939, 1962, and 1999. 

1939 has the distinction of having the highest-grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation: Gone With the Wind (which also won Best Picture). It was a time when the studio system was at its height, with great directors, stars, and producers cranking out movies for an audience hungry for entertainment. It also saw this murderer’s row of classics and very good films: The Wizard of Oz, John Ford’s Stagecoach (some believe to be the greatest Western of all time), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Gunga Din, George Cukor’s The Women, William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, Howard Hawk’s Only Angels Have Wings, Ninotchka, Destry Rides Again, Love Affair, Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, and Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game

1962 benefited from a historical oddity: many international films that were released in 1960 and 1961 were released in 1962 when distributors realized they could make money on these films. As the book Cinema ’62 notes, 1962 was a time when the studio system was changing greatly, a slew of great international directors- including Kurosawa (Sanjuro), Ozu (An Autumn Afternoon), Bergman (Through a Glass Darkly), Truffaut (Jules and Jim), Resnais (Last Year At Marienbad), Antonioni (La Notte and L’eclisse), Bunuel (Viridiana), Tarkovsky (My Name Is Ivan)– were at their prime, and subject matter began to evolve to include more of the human experience. The slate of American and English-language films released in ’62 is pretty good, too: Lawrence of Arabia (that year’s Best Picture and box office champ), To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. No, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Manchurian Candidate, The Miracle Worker, The Music Man, The Longest Day, Gypsy, Sweet Bird of Youth, Cape Fear, Lolita (Kubrick), The Trial (Welles), How the West Was Won, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Days of Wine and Roses.

Economics played a part in 1999 being a great year: DVD sales were booming, which meant that studios could take a chance on films that could recoup box office losses in DVD revenue, and it was not yet the golden age of TV. ‘99’s box office champ and Best Picture winner are not very good: Star Wars: Episode 1- The Phantom Menace and American Beauty, respectively. The best films of that year, though, were made by a who’s who of the-newly-arrived great directors: Memento (Christopher Nolan’s best), Fight Club (David Fincher’s best), Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson), Election (Alexander Payne), Titus (Julie Taymor), Three Kings (David O’Russell), and The Insider (Michael Mann), along with great and very good films like The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, The Iron Giant, Toy Story 2, Run Lola Run, Brokedown Palace, The Sixth Sense, Topsy-Turvy, 10 Things I Hate About You, Office Space, The Green Mile, The Hurricane, Man on the Moon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Boys Don’t Cry, Eyes Wide Shut, The Straight Story, Bringing Out the Dead, Any Given Sunday, All About My Mother, Notting Hill, and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

A couple of runner-up years: 1946 saw a number of great films get released on the heels of WWII, including It’s a Wonderful Life, Notorious (Hitchcock), The Best Years Of Our Lives, Shoeshine (de Sica), Great Expectations (Lean), My Darling Clementine (Ford), The Big Sleep, Gilda, The Killers, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Stranger, Henry V (Olivier), A Matter of Life and Death, Paisan (Rosselini), Children of Paradise, and Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau). 1974 is a strong representative of ‘70’s cinema (which some see as the highest film genre yet invented!): The Godfather II, The Conversation, Chinatown, Scenes From a Marriage, Amarcord, Blazing Saddles, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Murder on the Orient Express, The Front Page, The Great Gatsby, Lenny, The Parallax View, Sugarland Express, and A Woman Under the Influence. 1994 was influential in many ways: The Shawshank Redemption (the highest rated IMDb movie ever), The Lion King (maybe the greatest animated movie ever), Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, Hoops Dreams, Ed Wood, Quiz Show, Crooklyn, Reality Bites, Natural Born Killers, Dumb and Dumber, Speed, Little Women, and Legends of the Fall.

One could make an argument for 2007 as the greatest year of this century so far (There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, The Lives of Others, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Counterfeiters, The Departed, The Queen, Dreamgirls, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 3 Days, Gone Baby Gone, La Vie en Rose, Away From Her, Juno, Into the Wild, Zodiac, Once, Ratatouille, Babel, I Am Legend, Michael Clayton, and Atonement). As to whether 2021 will become the greatest year in movies, if I were going by the one and only 2021 release I’ve seen so far, I would say: “Yes!” Amazon Studio’s Herself is an excellent indie from Ireland. Ultimately, however, my guess is that 2021 will not be the greatest movie year ever for the simple fact that so many productions were shut down in 2020 due to COVID. But, it’s easier now than ever to make a movie, and many productions have improvised and proceeded. We’ll just have to wait and see where the chips fall, and then argue about the merits of 2021 versus all the other great movie years for the next decade or so. Happy viewing!

You can read more of Jonathan’s reviews at:

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/chorusinthechaos/author/jonathandorst/

The 10 Best Things in the Second Half of 2020

Twice a year, I make a list of the best media of the year. This is my chance to recommend non-movie entertainment, such as books, music, and podcasts, to you. In a year without traditional theatrical releases or many of the movies we were promised, I relied more than ever on other types of art to get me through. 

TV:

  1. The Good Lord Bird on Showtime

First Reformed already showed us that Ethan Hawke was skilled at playing zealous religious figures burdened with righteous purpose and a melancholy temperament. The Good Lord Bird, which aired this fall on Showtime, based on James McBride’s book, just confirms that Ethan Hawke should play wild preachers for the rest of his life. In 2020, where we were constantly reminded just how stupid we as a country can be, we didn’t need a dignified, sanitized look at history. We needed something unorthodox and a bit scandalous. By exploring the life of abolitionist John Brown from the perspective of the Black people around him, McBride and Hawke pull off a series that never gives easy answers. Was Brown a madman? Was he the sanest person in the country? Was Brown a Christian hero? Did Brown believe himself to be a white savior? Well…. all of these might be true. While the seven-episode miniseries sometimes falters in its pacing, it is consistently insightful, uncomfortable, hilarious, and heartfelt. It’s can’t-miss viewing.

  1. Into the Unknown: Making Frozen II On Disney+

This technically should have come out during my first part of 2020 list, because this miniseries was released June 26th. But I saw it afterward, and this is my list, so I’m going to include it! This series gives a shockingly candid look at the making of Frozen 2. From the last-minute story changes to the herculean effort of writing Show Yourself, it’s impossible not to be sucked into the drama behind the drama. 

I first got interested in filmmaking through watching and rewatching the behind-the-scenes featurettes of my VeggieTales VHS’s, and then when I got older, watching the hours upon hours of extras on the Lord of the Rings extended DVDs. Watching this series gave me the same thrill. For anyone who loves behind-the-scenes stories or has an interest in filmmaking or other creative industries, Into the Unknown is a great watch. 

Music:

  1. Folklore and Evermore– Taylor Swift 

After dropping her album Lover in late 2019 and her documentary Miss Americana early this year, no one would blame Taylor Swift for laying low the rest of 2020. After all, the pandemic and subsequent quarantining created widespread fatigue and burnout. 

But Miss Swift brought us not only one, but TWO albums this year, both surprises, just a few months apart. And both, in my humble opinion, are excellent. If you like sad folk music in the woods, Taylor has you covered. If you like country songs that tell stories (especially ones about women murdering cheating men) Taylor has some songs for you! If you like “old Taylor,” with her confessional writing and references to her feuds, there’s a song for that too. If you like love ballads, wistful reminisces, and the work of Bon Iver or The National, that’s all here. I’m jealous of Taylor’s ridiculous productivity, but I‘ll take it if I get more trips into these woods. 

  1. Future Nostalgia– Dua Lipa (came out in March)

Dua Lipa’s sophomore album is nothing like Taylor Swift’s offerings this year, but both women are at the height of their powers, and it is equally exciting to see. Future Nostalgia is bringing disco back with an album full of club tunes, with a coherent vision that can be described in three words: neon, bouncy, and fun. Dua Lipa has been all over the top 40 this year, and if you’ve liked her singles (“Don’t Stop Now,” “Levitating”) the full album does not disappoint. 

  1. Boreas- The Oh Hellos

The Oh Hellos are a sister-brother folk-rock duo from Texas. With lyrics that combine biblical allusions and mythology, paired with gorgeous vocals and energetic instrumentation, The Oh Hellos are perfect for fans of Mumford and Sons, The Crane Wives, and The Civil Wars. I can’t do much better than the band’s own description of the themes of the album, which feel perfectly suited to the pandemic-winter we are in right now. “Rose” and “Boreas” are highlights.

“Boreas, the northern wind, ushered in the harsh frosts of lonely winter… As we wrote these songs, we found ourselves confronted with the ways we’ve reflected this wind — how we often avoid discomfort, even at the expense of others, until we are left cold, hard, and unfeeling. In this record, we ask the winter to instead kindle us into something warmer and softer than who we’ve been.”

Books:

  1. Death in Her Hands, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh excels at writing unreliable, disgusting, and repulsive narrators in her works (Mcglue, Eileen, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation). Vesta Gul, the narrator of Death in Her Hands, is Moshfegh’s most likable protagonist yet (which isn’t saying much), but Moshfegh is still able to make every page become more and more disquieting and we spiral into Vesta’s mind in this twist on a murder-mystery. I generally think it’s harder to write earnest and hopeful stories rather than cynical and/or nihilistic ones, but if you’re going to read something nihilistic and grotesque, you might as well read from the best. And Moshfegh is one of the best. 

  1. Gentle and Lowly, by Dane Ortlund

A friend of mine described this book as “a balm to the soul,” and I couldn’t agree more. Gentle and Lowly does a deep dive into the heart of Christ. What is his heart towards his people? How does he approach us sinners? How do we understand Christ’s love as an outflowing of God’s love, when God can seem so unloving in the Old Testament? How does understanding the gentle and lowly heart of Christ change us? For fellow believers who are constantly racked with doubt and struggle with believing Christ actually is who he says he is, I urge you to read this book and let its truths sink in, and let it bring you peace. 

Movies:

  1. The Personal History of David Copperfield

Based on the Charles Dickens novel, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a fast-and-loose adaptation directed by Armando Iannucci. Iannucci also directed The Death of Stalin, a brutally witty and sharp satire. This is another period piece, but a lot more wholesome and whimsical. David Copperfield is an ensemble film with a genuinely wonderful, oddball cast, but it is well-anchored by its leading man. As David Copperfield, Dev Patel is a delight. He has nice comedic timing, carries the film easily, and has undeniable charisma and star power. Irreverent adaptations are all the rage right now, and I think this is one of the best examples of how to do that approach right. 

  1. The Trial of the Chicago 7

Aaron Sorkin directs and writes here, telling the story of the real-life Chicago 7, an assortment of anti-Vietnam activists who are arrested for conspiracy after they hold a demonstration. The film explores leftism vs liberals and the complexity behind the freedom to protest, and how government often works to suppress activism. 

When I initially watched The Trial of the Chicago Seven, I thought it was fantastic. It’s no secret Sorkin can write one hell of a screenplay, and I was enveloped in the courtroom drama, excellent performances, and raw emotions of the story. But afterward, I discussed the movie with my friend Sam (who wrote this piece about Tenet) and he brought to light some key observations that I hadn’t even considered, including:

  1. Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the co-founder of the Black Panther party, is in the first part of the movie, and gets some of the most outrageous, moving scenes, but is reduced primarily to a symbol. Once he is out of the film, he is not spoken of again. In a film about leftist politics and the explicitly racist nature of the justice system, to silence and then eliminate the only Black character (and the presence of Black people in the story) is ridiculous. If I may speak in broad strokes for a moment: many Black people complain that the Democratic party in America takes them and their vote for granted. The Trial of the Chicago 7 plays into this completely. 
  2. Systematic problems, like the difference between leftism and liberals, are made into personal problems. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman represents leftism, while Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden represents liberals. By the end of the film, they have respect for one another, presenting the divide between their ideologies as one that can be simply fixed with the friendship between two people. While, on some level, all ideologies in movies must be symbolically carried within single characters, and personal relationships across the aisle is a good thing, this depiction is simplistic, serving the emotions of the audience more than the story. 

More has been said about the flaws of the film, and they’re worth considering. But I don’t think those flaws should make you avoid the film- if anything, they’re another reason to watch and consider it.

Other:

  1. Ambient Noise Mixes

Are you now working or schooling from home? Do you wish you weren’t? Do you wish instead you were studying by the fire in a hobbit hole in the Shire? Or riding the train to Hogwarts? Or drinking tea with Mr. Tumnus before he betrays you to the White Witch? Or do you just wish you had some ambient noise mixers to help you focus on your work? If you spend a lot of time writing or sitting at the computer like me, you may enjoy some kind of background noise but can’t always do a playlist with lyrics. I have loved using these mixes inspired by fantasy settings. 

– Madeleine D. 

Netflix Bundle- Over the Moon, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and The Prom

Over the Moon

Over the Moon is a cute animated film about a young girl in China who believes in a traditional Chinese myth about a goddess who lives on the moon. When the girl’s father introduces her to her future stepmother, the girl builds a rocket to go to the moon goddess for help in breaking up the marriage. 

Over the Moon is best when it takes place on Earth, telling a tender story about grief and blended families. Once the characters get to the moon, the pacing becomes more frantic and the story more silly. Still, through it all, the animation is cartoonish but stylized, and the musical sequences are catchy. It’s the perfect choice for a family film, and I think will be entertaining for older viewers as well. 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a lot like 2016’s Fences,beyond both being adaptations of August Wilson plays. Both star Viola Davis in mesmerizing performances. Fences was directed by and starred Denzel Washington, and Ma Rainey is produced by him. Both films never utilize the film medium enough to ever feel like anything other than a play, yet both are so incredibly acted and written it doesn’t really matter. Like Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom delves deeply into the specifics of the Black American experience while still exploring universal emotions, even in a period piece. Here, it depicts the struggle of trailblazing Black musicians like Ma Rainey to gain respect and maintain power. The film is worth watching on multiple accounts, but it is especially resonant as Chadwick Boseman’s last film, and he doesn’t disappoint in his intense, soulful performance. 

The Prom

The Prom is based on the 2018 Tony-nominated musical about Broadway actors going to a small town in Indiana to advocate on behalf of a young lesbian, Emma, who is denied the ability to go to prom with her date. While the actors, played in the film by Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden, and Andrew Rannells, go for selfish reasons, over the course of their stay they become less self-absorbed and genuinely helpful in bringing about change in town. 

This Ryan Murphy-directed musical has received blowback for James Corden’s performance (I didn’t find it horrendous, but at best, it’s grating and tired), the lack of development for most of the characters, and leaning less into the satire of famous people and more into just focusing on famous people. The film has also been criticized for certain adaptational changes, which is what I find most revealing. One of the key adaptational changes is that Barry (Corden’s character) ends up reuniting with his mother, who kicked him out of the house as a teen. The film also has Kerry Washington’s character redeemed, accepting her gay daughter at the end of the film.

Neither of these story beats are in the musical and seem to me strange choices by Murphy. The LGBTQ+ community has a strong tradition of found families, yet The Prom prioritizes reunion with biological families, even families that treat their children terribly. The Prom is preaching to the choir but doesn’t really represent the diversity and core values of the LGBTQ+ community. In trying to be super palatable for straight people, it ends up feeling mushy and shapeless, like an overly-long musical number.

– Madeleine D.